Sampling a New Tex-Mex and an Ex-Tex-Mex
Years ago there was a tiny, popular place in Fells Point called Mike's. I used to call it "Microwave Mike's," because the small menu of quite good Tex-Mex was almost entirely nuked. "That would explain the five microwaves we found when we bought the place," our server at Gemini Bistro (710 S. Broadway,  342-8711) says as we're seated upstairs in a cozy, narrow room with a fireplace and exposed-brick walls.
Gemini's menu is in transition--something our server doesn't reveal until the end of the meal, which explains why some of the food that arrives at our table doesn't exactly fit the menu description. It's a bit disappointing. But on the whole we like what we get, and hope the choices don't change too much in the future.
C.C. and I are joined by my colleague Diane, who also will be strolling a block south with us after dinner for an evening of theater. Right now, though, our taste buds are tingling with anticipation as our server off-loads a trio of appetizers: Greek salad ($6), mussels ($7.50), and phyllo triangle ($8.50). The salad is big and fresh, populated by mixed greens, feta, Roma tomatoes, purple onion, and cucumbers and topped with a dynamite balsamic vinaigrette that really whets the appetite. The mussels are small but mostly grit-free, a big pile of them in a sauce fragrant of garlic and white wine, accompanied by a small loaf of bread for dipping. But the star starter is the immense phyllo triangle, a classy take on the traditional spinach pie. No spinach here, but plenty of crab meat, artichoke hearts, feta, and basil. The hot, crispy triangle is topped with a spicy red-pepper coulis. We all love it.
Which makes our disappointment with the entrées keener. Those main dishes, so beautifully described on the menu, arrive, well, stripped down. Diane's sweet barbecued salmon ($16), ostensibly served over cheddar-cheese polenta, lacks polenta of any kind. Diane despairs but is somewhat ameliorated by what remains of the dish, fat twin filets of fish enlivened by a good sauce. Similarly, my double rack of lamb with walnuts and mustard ($17.50) is devoid of both walnuts and mustard. It's also cooked more medium than the requested medium-rare, but the chops themselves, eight small but meaty specimens, are redolent of rosemary and delicious.
Only C.C. gets exactly what she ordered, chicken Chesapeake ($14), marinated twin breasts topped with crab (good quality but not lump) and a light imperial sauce. This is one of C.C.'s favorite dishes, and she finds Gemini's version very satisfying. All our dinners come with a mix of savory roasted vegetables--potato wedges, zucchini, yellow squash, carrots, and green pepper.
Dessert beckoned, but the curtain was about to go up on Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, so off we sped.
Somewhere between Blue Agave (Belly Up, June 6) and Taco Bell on the Mexican-restaurant food chain sits the new chain Baja Fresh, with outlets currently open in Columbia (6435 Dobbin Road [Dobbin Center],  715-3933) and Cockeysville 11121 York Road [Ashland Marketplace],  584-7400). (We went to the one in Cockeysville.) You can carry out or eat in at this brightly lit bistro, where you order at the counter, help yourself to salsas at the salsa bar, grab your fountain drink and plastic utensils, and nab a seat in the attractive dining area. The ambiance is a bit too busy for lingering, but the grub is cheap and tasty, even though the chain prides itself on not using MSG or lard. (What are they, un-American?)
The smoky foods are great here: the shrimp in the shrimp taco ($2.25), the flank steak in the fajitas ($6.95), and the charred Baja salsa. To sample a lot in one dish, get the fajitas with your choice of chicken or steak (or both), your choice of black beans or pinto beans (go with the pintos--more personality), and plenty of fixings, including a tomato-rich guacamole. Lighter eaters will enjoy the fish taco ($2.10), a chunk of nicely fried red snapper topped with sliced cabbage, and the shrimp taco.
Big eaters will want to bulk up on the burritos. C.C. got the burrito "dos manos" ($7.35), stuffed with chicken or steak and, according to your whim, beans, rice, onion, peppers, chilies, and cheese. C.C. ordered it "enchilado" style, meaning topped with jack and cheddar cheeses, salsa, and sided with lettuce, tomato, and sour cream ($2.95 extra for the "dos manos" burrito, $1.75 extra for the others). When the server/busser delivered two dishes, we thought we had mistakenly ordered two burritos. She patiently explained that the "dos manos" is two burritos, served separately because the restaurant doesn't have a baking dish big enough to accommodate one huge, two-fisted entrée. C.C. could barely finish one.
Baja Fresh's tacos are soft, not fried, and everything comes with an ample helping of chips. An interesting side item is the cebollitas ($1.25), a huge serving of grilled, seasoned spring onions. This is sanitized Tex-Mex, to be sure, but with prices and portions like these, who's complaining?
Gemini Bistro: Open 5-10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 1-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1-10 p.m. Sunday. Baja Fresh: Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.